My friend Extropia DaSilva is a digital person — and she is one of the inspirations for this article, as she brings to the fore a rather interesting question. Who are “You”?
As Extropia proves, this is a much deeper question than one might think, and one that we must all answer as we face a future of unlimited possibility. If I met you on the street and asked ‘who are you,’ what answer would you give? Is it the same answer you would give if I asked you in the anonymity of the Internet? Is it the same answer you would give if I were your most trusted friend?
Odds are, your answer would be quite different depending on where and how it was asked. Why? Because we all wear masks. Depending on what we believe is acceptable by society’s standards, we will be more or less honest about who we are. Ask me online who I am, and I’m quite honest–I think of myself as a succubus, right down to the horns, hooves, wings and tail. I’ll even tell you that I fully expect technology to arrive in the not too distant future that will allow me to be in real life exactly as I feel in Secondlife. Ask someone like Extie, and she’ll tell you she is a virtual persona—a fully separate entity from the person “running” her as a simulation—and looks forward to the day that she can become an AI. But outside of Secondlife, I certainly can’t get a job by admitting to being a succubus: it’s not socially acceptable to be one.
Which brings me to the point of this article: Our societies, regardless of nation or culture, are built upon social norms assumed to be outside of human control. Extropia and I, and others like us, suffer the prejudice that derives from these “unchangeable certainties.” I get asked, “Why do you want to look like a demoness?” a lot. My answer is, invariably, “Why should I not?”
We love to talk about how all men are born equal. It’s a great outlook to have, but we all instinctively know it’s a lie we tell ourselves as a society. Legally, we may be equivalent, but a casual walk down the street will quickly reveal that we are not truly equal. Why? Because if we were truly equal, everyone would look exactly alike. We’d all be equally pretty, or equally tall, or equally beige, but we’re not. Some of us are fat, or ugly, or short, or different colors. From the day we are born to the day we die, we are stuck with the results of the genetic lottery our DNA plays in its efforts to survive, regardless of our personal desires. Stuck with our DNA, many of us go through lives of quiet desperation, wishing we were something other than what our genetic lot says we are.
The same goes for mental and physical abilities. We can educate, but so far we can’t change our IQs in any significant way, and if we happen to be born small, no matter how much time we put into the gym it won’t make us one inch taller. We don’t talk about such differences, such inequalities, yet we act on them daily. We involuntarily divide ourselves into cliques of similar type and arrange a pecking order based on physical, mental and social differences like race, gender and personality.
I would be willing to bet that if you walked down the street, you could probably make a pretty good guess as to who belongs in which social tier based on appearance, dress, and displays of wealth. You can probably fit just about everyone into some niche or another. Like the Hindu caste system, we’ve stratified our entire existence based on the unchangeable certainty of our genetic heritage. People like Extropia and I tend to make people uncomfortable because we refuse to fit into those niches; we’re labeled “freaks”, shunned like the “untouchable” caste in Hinduism.
You may have never consciously examined societies this way, but you are probably all too aware of your status within your own society, and exactly how little you can do to change it unless you acquire large sums of the local currency. You are probably also aware of who is above you on that scale, as well as who is below you. You can’t help it. We are social animals; it’s hardwired into human genetic code. We will always find ways to divide ourselves because our reproductive drives force us to maximize reproductive success.
Yes, I am aware that numerous other factors come into play in any given individual’s success in climbing the social ladder, but if you look deeply enough, I think you will find lucky genetics plays a major role in many of their successes. Despite the massive complexity of our current society, we are still little more than glorified apes, and base far too many decisions on gut instincts instead of reason. We instinctively find tall people more commanding than short people. We instinctively co-operate with a pretty person faster than we do with an ugly one. We revere good looks and shun deformity. Even such genetic factors as who our parents are might dictate what opportunities we may have in life; the majority of those with access to substantial wealth are far more often those who come from a wealthy family than those who built that wealth from nothing. DNA is certainly not the ONLY factor, but is it by far one of the most influential across the broadest spectrum of humanity.
Yet this fact of life is changing. If you’ve read many of my articles here on H+ magazine, you will find I’ve spent a great
deal of time pointing out exactly how it is changing, with the advent of portable VR, stem cell based cosmetic surgeries, even continuing advances in cybernetic prosthetics. But what I have not really discussed much are the social implications of this advancing technology. So let me give you a quick recap: it is likely we will soon be able to alter our appearance on a whim, first in VR through the use of “Avatars”, then later on in actual physical space as stem cell therapies enable extreme morphological cosmetic surgeries. We will be able to customize every aspect of our physical appearance; height, weight, shape, size, hair color, skin color, etc. It will all become a matter of personal choice.
Now, I want you to spend a moment contemplating exactly how disruptive that ability will be to the social pecking order I just spent so much time discussing.
Almost every injustice we humans inflict on each other stems from the separation between “us” and “them”. “We” consider ourselves superior, and dehumanize the rest. White supremacy is a perfect example. What will happen to this rather extreme worldview when literally anyone can choose their skin color, be it white, black, yellow, or pink with purple polka dots? How desperately will such rigid mindsets seek to maintain the comforting social myth that they are better just because of the genetic markers determining race? How far will we they go to prevent people from being able to change skin colors just to perpetuate this myth? Will we see terrorism in the vein of abortion clinic bombings? Will anti-cosmetic change activists chant about how “god ordains skin tones”, or that “the ability to change is immoral”? Sad to say, I’m all too certain the answer is yes. Once we truly begin to have the ability to change the genetic lottery, we are likely to find all sorts of people will want to limit this ability drastically, lest it threaten the status quo (Or more accurately, their place in the social pecking order).
The same issues hold sway in terms of gender and sexuality. We’ve learned that questions of sexual identity and preference are just as hardwired into us as our other physical traits, but there’s every possibility that those traits may become a matter of choice as well. As outraging as that possibility might be to many members of the LGBTQ community, it nonetheless remains a real possibility that as we learn to reprogram the human body, we may have to face the day when gender and sexual preference can be changed as readily as skin tone. Considering the long history behind the struggle for equal rights for the non-hetero crowd, I fully expect we’ll have just as many purists trying to deny people the right to choose who and what they want to be.
And that’s just for those who choose to remain within the very narrow definition of what I call “vanilla human.” As should be obvious, I’m not one of them. Nor am I alone, as should be obvious to anyone who’s spent time online, or at any sort of fan convention. Animegao Kigurumi (anime face masks and body suits that allow people to basically look like anime characters), Furries (people dressing as anthropomorphic animals with any combination of human and animal characteristics), Star Trek and Sci-Fi aliens, World of Warcraft characters, Goths and Vampires; there are enormous groups of people meeting online and forming new societies with identities every bit as strong as those of the older, more “traditional” ones. As technology continues to enable these groups to realize their desires, do you truly expect them to simply stand aside and forego change because another group feels uncomfortable with Anime girls and Furries? Or in my case, because I might “offend” a certain group? Hell, I plan to someday walk into a church and sit in the front row for service with horns, wings, hooves, and tail. Do you really think that any amount of protesting by those who would claim that radically altering one’s appearance is “against gods will” could stop us?
And what of those like Extie, those whose existence is wholly virtual? I know many others besides her who feel that they are “completely separate” from their “host”, who are merely “sharing” a brain for the moment. We will have to face a growing number of entirely virtual people, people who live in the virtual, but interact in the real in the exact same way most of us live in the real and interact with the virtual. As we continue to improve our computers and programs, we may even have a population explosion of Virtuals, as our “digital twins” and “virtual playmates” become sophisticated enough to have thoughts and feelings of their own. We will have to eventually make a decision about virtual rights and how far “ownership” can extend over a semi- or fully-sentient entity, whether they have a “physical body” or not.
We are about to enter an age of choice unprecedented in all of human history. One in which the certainties we have built our social structures upon will be eradicated and replaced with unlimited choice. We will have to face a future in which every fantasy of human imagination has become reality, where trolls can walk down the street with wookies, and centaurs and satyrs frolic in the parks. A world in which there are no losers in the genetic lottery because DNA no longer controls humanity and has instead become its servant. A world in which the walls that exist between our dreams and our waking reality have come down.
It is not going to be an easy transition by any means. We’ve spent our entire lives knowing that the face we see in the mirror will be that same face day after day. Many of us have given up hope of ever being anything different, trying to convince ourselves that we’re “happy” with “who we are.” We’ve even got groups out there protesting “Barbie dolls” because it “raises unrealistic expectations.” I look at those groups and I have to laugh, because I know it’s caused by disappointment and sour grapes. We DO want to look like Barbie and He-man, like Angelina and Arnie in their prime. We want to be free to look on the outside how we feel on the inside, to be the beautiful people instead of the genetic losers. And we will. I have no doubts about that.
The only question I have is how many people will die defending the status quo. How many will chose to kill rather than allow true equality? Because morphological freedom is exactly that: true equality. With the ability to look as we choose, any number of bio- and cyber-enhancements to equalize physical abilities, and any number of “mental helper” software and hardware devices to raise IQ, we will have truly created a world in which everyone is born equal. Where we go from there is entirely up to us, and while I am all too certain that our early experiences with morphological freedom will result in ten million Pamela Anderson and Brad Pitt clones as everyone seeks to become the “perfect 10”, I know that we will in very short order begin to explore the infinite variations of possibility. And when we do, we will have to finally face our xenophobia and overcome it.
Because I WILL be a succubus, and I’m not going to give up my wings and hooves just because you can’t cope with their existence. Neither is Extie going to stop seeking to become independent just because you can’t wrap your brain around the concept of a virtual person. Nor will the vast armies of furries, vamps, Goths, aliens, anime characters and who-knows-what-else cease to exist simply because you are happy with being human, and think we’re nuts. We’ve stood in the shadows too long, hidden behind masks of other people’s expectations, but not for much longer. When we begin to taste life as our dreams, first through VR, and not long after, via cosmetic alterations, we will not allow ourselves to be shoved back into the dark. You WILL have to come to terms with us, whether you like the idea or not.
And maybe, once everyone everywhere can finally be free to be whoever and whatever they chose to be, we will finally realize there is no “us” and “them” because we are them and they are us and we are all human no matter what we look like–even those of us with horns and hooves and wings. Underneath the customizations I will still be the same person I always was, I just won’t be hiding anymore, and neither will many others like me.
And once we no longer need to hide who were are, maybe we won’t feel so much of a need to force others to hide their real selves either, and we can finally do away with prejudice and irrational hatred of others just because of their looks. It’s long past time the human race gave up such childish behavior.
That’s my dream, and one I hope many of you share.